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Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day 21) - "The Toss of a Lemon" by Padma Viswanathan

Day 21 of my Book Advent Calendar brings us to “V” with my chosen author being a Canadian.
Day 21:  The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
4 Stars

This is a multi-generational epic set in India, mostly in the first half of the twentieth century.

Sivakami, a child bride, is widowed at eighteen when her astrologer husband dies on the date he predicted.  She is left to care for her daughter Thangam and her son Vairum.  Her odyssey extends into her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  After Sivakami, much of the story is told from the perspective of her granddaughter Janaki.

The focus is on the day-to-day life of a Brahmin household, especially a Brahmin widow who must live in almost complete seclusion because widows were seen as bad omens.  Sivakami is very orthodox and accepts her fate unquestioningly.  She becomes a symbol of purity, avoiding touching anyone in daylight.  Her loyal servant, Muchami, serves as her representative in the outside world.

The novel traces the conflicts between the traditional India and the modern, secular one.  Sivakami represents the former and her son represents the latter with his progressive ideas about a non-caste India.  It is difficult to feel sympathy for Sivakami because of her extreme orthodoxy which includes a sense of inviolable superiority over everyone else.  She has a fear and disgust of “pollution”. 

A major theme is the incompleteness of knowledge.  Sivakami must make decisions for her children while being functionally illiterate about the outside world.  Her traditional certainty encounters a modern future that is unknowable. 

The title refers to the practice of having someone toss a lemon out the window when a baby crowns so that a male outside can determine the precise time of birth for horoscopic purposes.  We never learn the horoscope of Sivakami’s son:  the unknowable future.